THE AUTOMOBILE AS A POLITICAL MACHINE
Courier-Post, Cherry Hill, N.J.
I grew up in California. So I'm a crunchy-granola, vegan-pancakes, separate-the-Polystyrol-plastics-and-the-Polypropylene-plastics-into-different-recycling-bins kind of guy. I'm a tree-hugger, a mealy-mouthed, public-radio-listening, condescending, liberal nut-job.
I am all these things, except when I'm driving.
In the car, I am the worst sort of arch social Darwinist. The weak are to be terrified and subdued. Nice little old ladies should be weeded out so that loud, angry guys may flourish. If you get in my way, your car will be chopped up and fed to my car.
To some degree, this is a personal problem. Obviously other issues are involved when I react to a stoplight by screaming, "I am not a drunk!" But the whole country also apparently shares this same political personality disorder. Half of what we believe reflects what we are behind the wheel, the other arises when we're on foot. Viz.:
The Mideast conflict
On foot: The Middle East is a complex region of countless deep-seated cultural and geographical feuds to which America reacts by going to Steven Seagal movies and throwing cups of root beer when the Arabs appear on screen. Our most important strategic tool, however, ought to be patience. As Jon B. Alterman wrote in the December 2000 issue of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, "by concentrating so heavily on military threats, U.S. policy may miss the importance of internal political changes, which over the next decade could be the principal factor affecting U.S. interests." Oops, I read that too fast and it's too big for my brain. Ow. Ow ow ow ow ow.
In the car: If the price of gas drops 5 cents, do I really care that, as a result, say, 10 or 12 people 4,000 miles away will die? I mean, I'll never actually see them.
On foot: Development follows the highways. When you widen a road, rest stops soon will crop up alongside, followed by condos, dance academies, milkshake machines and beatniks - weird hipsters sprouting goatees, smoking foreign cigarettes, drinking tiny bottles of vanilla extract and wandering into your bedroom at 3 a.m. saying, " Your old lady and I are hitching to Mexico. Hope that's cool with you, man."
That's why we must leave certain areas preserved. I, for example, oppose extending Route 55 into Cape May to replace the existing surface road. And I can take this stand unequivically for the most natural of all reasons: I never drive there.
In the car: Do you know why Californians call their Interstates "freeways"? Because you feel so free when you drive on them - joining a strand of souls from San Francisco to Paterson, Barstow to Atlanta, an orgy of pure movement. We ought to pave everything in all directions so we never have to stop. Just buy a Lexus, set the cruise control, pop in the Madonna dance mix and drive across the country nekkid.
On foot: Perhaps Edward Asner (TV's Lou Grant) put it best when he said that "our campaign urges reasonable Americans to voice their support for the suspension of the death penalty until questions about its fairness can be studied." This is eerily consistent with the opinions of Mike Farrell (TV's B.J. Hunnicut from "M*A*S*H," and currently starring in NBC's "Providence"), who said, "the current state of unfairness is intolerable, demanding that we take steps to implement a moratorium now." But of course, I can not decide for certain about this issue until I hear from Ed Begley Jr.
In the car: If I had a button on my steering wheel that would kill everyone on earth past and present including myself, I would press it.
I could go on: Arctic oil drilling, Bobby Knight, the stock market and the presidential election. (Gore is on foot, Bush is in the car.) We are a divided nation. But maybe I can sum it up for everybody when I say that if it weren't for who I am when I'm in the car, the person I am on foot couldn't get to his job. Then again, if it weren't for the person in the car, the person on foot wouldn't need the money.